Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Shakespeare Authorship Ruse Documented in Ben Jonson’s Epigram To Fine Grand


Shake-speare’s First Folio provided the foundation for Will Shakspere of Stratford’s identification as the great author.   Acknowledging that Ben Jonson played a part in the Folio’s production and also had a hand in the inscription on the monument in Trinity Church, Nina Green notes that this “suggests that the publication of the First Folio and the erection of a monument to Shakespeare in the church at Stratford were a coordinated effort in which Ben Jonson played a key part.”[i]    Recognizing that there was a “coordinated effort” enables readers to interpret Jonson’s works in a new light. When read with an understanding of his involvement in the authorship deception, Jonson’s epigram “To Fine Grand” seems to reveal his participation in the attribution of the great works of Shake-speare to the Stratford man.  The form of the poem, several of the items listed, and the grand total of the “fine,” seem to indicate that the authorship ruse is likely the true subject of this epigram.


Epigrammes” is a collection of poems that first appeared in The Workes of Benjamin Jonson, printed in November, 1616.[ii]  “To Fine Grand” has traditionally been read as a lament by Jonson about being a “poet for hire” in which he is expressing his disgust at the many services he has rendered to “Grand;” an unidentified courtier or patron.  A familiarity with the evidence that exists for William Shakspere, and knowing that Jonson was involved in the message that posterity received about Shakespeare’s identity, provide an entirely new reading of “To Fine Grand.”  The poem includes references to money lending, lying about authorship, a picture, an imprese, and an epitaph.  Each of these items has specific associations with William Shakspere and Ben Jonson.

Jonson’s signature ambiguity is on display in the title, which can be understood two different ways. “Fine” could refer to finery in dress and manner (This poem is ADDRESSED TO someone in the upper class (a grandee) Jonson has nick-named “Fine Grand”), or it is intended as a bill or a penalty that must be paid (the purpose of the poem is TO FINE someone Jonson has nick-named “Grand”).  Although using the word “To” as in Jonson’s other epigrams “To Groome Ideot” and “To Person Guilty” would imply that “Fine Grand” was being used as a title, the next three times Jonson names his target, he uses only GRAND[iii] in capital letters.   The form of the poem (a bill for items or services rendered) seems to indicate that its intention is the monetary definition, as does the final line (“Pay me quickly or I’ll pay you.”).

So does he intend either of these meanings? Both? Is he addressing two different people? One a grandee and one a businessman?  Inspection of the poem will show that half could be directed at William Shakspere while the other half addresses Jonson’s employer in the Shakespeare authorship deception.  Along with the form of the poem resembling a business transaction (and documentary evidence of William Shakspere indicates he was an investor, moneylender and broker), many of the “items” Jonson includes in his bill have explanations could relate to Shakspere himself, and others to the tasks required of Jonson in the attempt to put Shakspere forward as the author Shake-speare.

What is’t, fine Grand, makes thee my friendship flye,

Or take an Epigramme so fearefully:

As’t were a challenge, or a borrowers letter?

Jonson would never have known the only letter we would have of William Shakspere’s would be a “borrower’s letter” from Richard Quiney[iv]  but since additional evidence exists that shows Shakspere was known for lending money (and bringing suits against those who failed to pay him back.[v]), we can assume that Shakspere’s moneylending activities and court challenges were publically known at the time.

The world must know your greatnesse is my debter.

Certainly, no one is more responsible for the greatness of the Stratford Man than Ben Jonson.  All references to the great author being the man of Stratford-Upon-Avon followed the First Folio’s publication in 1623, for which Jonson provided dedicatory poems and letters. Without Jonson’s contributions to the First Folio, there may never have been a successful myth that Shakspere had been the greatest writer of all time.

Meanwhile, Jonson also seemed to be constantly trying to set the record straight by associating Shakspere not with writers, but with actors.  In The Workes of Benjamin Jonson, Jonson lists Shakespeare on the cast lists of comoedians in the 1598 production of “Every Man In His Humour” (as Will Shakespeare) and as one of the principall tragoedians in the 1603 production of “Sejanus” (as Will Shake-speare).  Both lists also include actors Heminge, Condell and Burbage. The First Folio includes a cast list headed by “William Shakespeare” as well as dedicatory letters signed by actors Heminge and Condell (but thought to have been written by Jonson).[vi] These associations with actors taken together with the interlineation in Shakspere’s will leaving money for rings to Heminge, Condell and Burbage) provide evidence placing Shakspere firmly in an acting and not a writing profession.  Other evidence confirms that Shakspere was a shrewd businessman and moneylender.[vii]   Only because of Jonson is Shakspere identified as an author, therefore Will Shakspere was indebted to Jonson for his reputation of literary greatness.

In-primis, GRAND, you owe me for a iest;

I lent you, on meere acquaintance, at a feast.

Item, a tale or two some fortnight after;

That yet maintaynes you, and your house in laughter


Speculating on the specific jest and tales that Jonson refers to in the next four lines would be futile, but similarities between these items and some legends in the Shakespeare mythos can be observed.   There is a story involving Shakespere and Richard Burbage that is considered an invented joke. [viii]  If this is the jest Jonson is responsible for, then he is once again placing Shakspere in the company of actors, and not writers.

The phrase “meere acquaintance” echoes another legend from the Shakespeare “biography:” that of the “Merry Meeting.”   In 1662 the Vicar of Stratford recorded some local gossip he had heard of the events that preceded Shakspere’s death.   It told that “Shakespeare, Drayton and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting, and it seems drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.”  The similarity in wording between meere/merry and acquaintance/meeting is an interesting coincidence.  

But regardless of the actual tales and jest, the message we seem to be getting from Jonson is that the person he is speaking to took these things and didn’t compensate or acknowledge Jonson as the source, insinuating that the addressee repeatedly stole Jonson’s work/ideas.  This sentiment is also reminiscent of the subject of “On Poet Ape” who “makes each man’s wit his own; and told of this, he slights it…”

Item, the babylonian song you sing;

Item, a fair greeke poesie for a ring,

With which a learned madam you belye.

Again, it is unwise to speculate on the specific song and poesie that Jonson has in mind here.  “Babylonian” can be defined as meaning “incomprehensible”[ix] and “greeke[x]” has definitions including being deceitful or difficult to understand, so the use of these terms seems to lead into the belying in the following line, again taking us back to the sentiment from “On Poet Ape.”

It is quite interesting that the object of deceit is a ring, since a connectionbetween Will Shakspere and the London theatre community is made with rings.  In Shakspere’s will, money was left for Burbage, Condell and Heminges (members of the King’s Men theatre company) to purchase rings.[xi]  Coincidentally, Shakspere’s will is also itemized like “To Fine Grand,” but seeing this poem as an intentional allusion to Shakspere’s will would require Jonson’s presence at the composition and signing of the will, and there is no evidence he was involved in it.[xii]

Jonson indicates that Grand used a poem (poesie) to deceive a learned madame.[xiii]  This section paints Grand as a cheat and or deceiver.  Grand’s belying a learned madame could indicate that educated people were attributing poems to the undeserving Shakspere at this time in history and this was upsetting Jonson.  He expressed aggravation with this in “On Poet Ape” as well, at someone whose actions might lead posterity to “judge it to be his as well as ours.”

Item, a charme surrounding fearefully

Your partie-per-pale picture, one halfe drawne

In solemne cypres, the other cob-web- lawne.

In Heralds and Heraldry in Ben Jonson’s Plays, Masques and Entertainments, Arthur Huntington Nason states that the party per pale division “does not occur in any of the coats blazoned by Jonson.[xiv]”  Jonson does not appear to be talking about a coat of arms, however, since he uses the word “picture” and not “escutcheon” or “shield” and describes the picture, not with the standard “tinctures,” but in colors associated with clothing; cypress (black) and lawne (white).  A blazon would use the words “sable” and “argent” to indicate black and white.

The picture most associated with Jonson and Shakspere/Shakespeare, of course, is the Droeshout engraving on the front of the First Folio.  The picture of “Shakespeare” is odd to say the least, but the background of Martin Droeshout’s engraving resembles heraldic hatchings dividing it into two distinct sides – similar to a party-per-pale shield.    An examination of Jonson’s poems surrounding the Droeshout engraving reveals that he included a charme (the repetition of certain words) as well.[xv]  The word “picture” also has a derogatory definition, meaning: a person who is a poor imitation of someone or something else; a counterfeit[xvi]



Droeshout Engraving – Used with permission from Meisei University[xvii]


Item, a gulling imprese for you, at tilt.

Contemporary references to Shakspere associated him with the word “gull.”  In Shakespeare Suppressed, Chiljan explains:

Ben Jonson and an anonymous writer at Cambridge University lampooned the Stratford Man in a cluster of comedies performed during 1598 to 1601.  All four plays feature one character of this description: an uneducated or naïve man who pretends to be or believes he is a gentleman.  His pose is seen as ridiculous by the more knowledgeable characters and in three of four plays he is called a “gull.” He pretends to write poetry, but actually gets it from brokers, steals it, or hires others to write it.  He has money, but how he obtains it is not explained.  Although some may argue that this is a standard character type, three of the plays describe the gull with characteristics specific to the Stratford Man.  It was no accident, then, that the word “gull” was stressed – a pun on Gulielium – the Latin equivalent of William. [xviii]

An imprese can refer to either a device (a heraldic shield) or the motto accompanying a device. [xix]  Shakspere’s father John and later William applied for the right to bear arms.  The imprese (or motto) associated with William Shakspere’s coat of arms is the phrase “Non Sanz Droit.” Although there is some disagreement that this phrase was ever used as a motto by the Shakspere family, it is on the application and Ben Jonson seems to parody this phrase in Every Man Out of His Humour, where he includes a scene where Sogliardo, aspiring to become a gentleman, buys a coat of arms.  The knight Puntarvolo echoes Shakspere’s motto when he exclaims that Sogliardo’s motto should be “Not Without Mustard!”

The Shakspere Coat of Arms includes a tilting spear and a bird sits atop the shield.  Is this bird intended to be seen as a gull? The drawing on the 1596 application includes a bird that resembles a seagull more so than a falcon (the bird described in the blazon), but this could just be the herald’s rendering.  The item on the shield is a tilt spear (or tilting spear), so Jonson’s usage of gulling, imprese and tilt in close proximity can all refer to Shakspere’s arms.  There is no evidence to suggest that Jonson designed Shakspere’s arms, but the retelling of Sogliardo’s fight with the heralds and “Not Without Mustard”/ “Not Without Right” suggests that Jonson knew detailed information about Shakspere’s attempt to get arms.  How involved Jonson was in the design is unknown, though the capital letters of the motto bear a similarity to Jonson’s handwriting. [xx]


Shakspere’s 1596 Application for Arms


Jonson’s Masque of Queens Manuscript















Item, your mistris anagram, I’ your hilt.

Item, your owne, sew’d in your mistris smock.

Of the paintings said to be of Shakespeare, one may portray the sentiment of these two lines.  Jonson mentions an anagram in a hilt and a smock (which at the time he was writing referred to a chemise type undergarment worn by women). [xxi] [xxii]


A portrait at Hampton Court Palace once claimed to be of Shakespeare displays both of these items.  The sitter’s sleeves are unbuttoned, showing the shirt beneath.  The sword hilt in the sitter’s right hand is tilted at such an angle and the knuckles are shaded so that it appears to be an X and the hilt in the sitter’s other hand is rounded like an O.  The belt crossing over the front of the doublet includes a buckle that seems to display the letters E and D, providing the letters needed to anagram ED OX (standing for Edward Oxenford?)  This portrait is reported to have come from Penshurst[xxiii], the home of the literary Sidney family and location of Ben Jonson’s poem “To Penshurst.”  Jonson’s connection to the supposed first known “home” of this painting make this another interesting coincidence and possible that it is the anagram he is describing in To Fine Grand.


Royal Collection Trust/ C Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

Item, an epitaph on my lord’s cock,

In most vile verses, and cost me more pain,

Than had I made ’em good, to fit your vein.

The epitaph on the Stratford monument in Trinity Church has already been suggested as Jonson’s doing, but the wording on the gravestone is often described as “doggerel.” Could these be the “vile verses” Jonson is describing?  Is Jonson telling us that he was also responsible for composing the gravestone verses, written to sound like it was composed by the Stratford Man?

FG6 (2)

The word “cock” could have multiple meanings ranging from: a rooster, the male of various bird species, the head, God, the chief of a group, the male body part, or a boat, among other things. [xxiv] But the association with “vile verses” and earlier “gull” wording make it likely that Jonson was shortening the word “cockscomb” (fool) or “woodcock” (a fool, simpleton, dupe), both of which have negative connotations that fit in with the gull imagery. [xxv] As noted above, there were similarities drawn between several fictional characters and Shakspere that depict him as a gull, along with the drawing on the application having more similarities with a gull (the male of which, like many birds, is a cock), than a falcon as blazoned (the male falcon is called a tercel).


Fortie things more, deare GRAND, which you know true,

For which, or pay me quickly’, or Ile pay you.

Jonson lists nine items individually and then adds “Fortie things more.” If totaled (9 items + 40 more items) the grand total of items would then add up to 49.  Did Jonson do this purposely?  If so, what is the significance of 49?  The closest number 49 – Epigram 49[xxvi] is titled “To Play-wright.” Was Jonson leading us to connect To Fine Grand to a certain play-wright?


Although the word “playwright” is attributed to Jonson[xxvii], the term “playwrights” appears in a dedication poem for Sejanus signed by “Cygnus” in 1605.  Both usages are derogatory. Where Jonson wrote plays but described himself as a poet, perhaps he initially used the word “play-wright” to describe someone who wasn’t writing his own plays, but fastening pieces of already written works together, similar to the “Poet Ape.”  If Jonson is referring to the same person in On Poet Ape, could he be insinuating that Fine Grand is associated with the same person who “picks and gleans” and “makes each man’s wit his own” by building plays as a wheelwright builds a wheel or cartwright builds a cart, from previously fashioned pieces?

Jonson mentions Play-wright  having his own booke in Epigram 49, but what playwright had “his own” book that was like Jonson’s?   The Workes of Benjamin Jonson was published in the fall of 1616.  Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies Histories & Tragedies published seven years later, establishing Shakspere as Shakespeare for years to come.  Jonson was, of course, a driving force behind this book.

The mention of the “epitaph” and “vile verses”  raises the suspicion that this poem may be alluding to the Shake-speare ruse.  The resemblance of the Droeshout engraving to a “partie-per-pale picture” is another link and the use of “gulling imprese” and “tilt” remind us of fictional and actual arms associated with Shakspere. The correlations between the items listed in To Fine Grand and the evidence we have from Shakspere’s life, along with the form of the poem and the total leading us to a poem involving a play-wright all seem quite persuasive.   The difficulty encountered with this theory is that the poem predates the First Folio printing by at least seven years.  Would Jonson already have been preparing the epitaph, the vile verses, and the partie-per-pale picture at that early date?

If “To Fine Grand” is addressed to William Shakspere of Stratford and the “grandee” that employed Jonson to put the Stratford man forward as the author Shakepeare, Jonson could be revealing that he was in the process of preparing the paratexts of the First Folio and the other elements of the authorship deception as early as 1616, while he was in the process preparing his own collection of texts.  If the dedication from Troilus and Cressida is included as Jonson’s in the preparation of this “cock and bull” story, then there was a plan in motion by 1609.  In Shakespeare Suppressed, Katherine Chiljan suggests “… plans for the identity switch were afoot before the Stratford Man had died…” [xxviii]

Listing the elements of the ruse before the ruse was officially made public would certainly provide plausible deniability for Jonson.  If he felt distaste with the plan itself, printing an epigram about it would give him an outlet for expressing his annoyance while camouflaging it in a cluster of other poems addressed to various unidentified persons. By documenting his efforts in “To Fine Grand,”  Jonson was leaving himself an acknowledgement of the work was doing in the time-consuming project that would otherwise remain a secret for the rest of his life.


Notes and Sources:

[i] Green, Nina: “Did Ben Jonson write the inscription for the Shakespeare monument in the church at Stratford on Avon?”

[ii] Donaldson, Ian. Ben Jonson: A Life. Oxford University Press: United Kingdom. 2011. Pg  325, sources Pg 495.   Donaldson reports that although the Stationers Register lists a book titled “Ben Jonson his Epigrams” in May, 1612, “no copy is known to exist, and it is likely the project came to nothing.”

[iii] The use of the word “Grand” also reminds us of the dedication on the 1609 quarto edition of Troilus & Cressida, where the writer (who some have posited might be Jonson) hints the “Grand possessors” are withholding the plays from the public.  If these “Grand Possessors” had decision making power over the release of Shakespeare’s Plays, then addressing the recipient/ as “Grand” in this poem could be connected to this effort.

[iv] Addressed to “his ‘Lovinge good ffrend & contreymann Mr Wm Shackespere’. Quiney asks for a loan of £30 (about £3,750 in today’s money).”

[v] Barber, Ros. Shakespeare: The Evidence, The Authorship Question Clarified. 2014.  Kindle Edition 2.2 Evidence: Financial and Business Dealings


[vi] Whalen, Richard F. “The Ambiguous Ben Jonson: Implications for Addressing the Validity of the First Folio Testimony.” Shakespeare Beyond Doubt? Llumina Press. 2013, p132

[vii] Barber, 2.2 Evidence: Financial and Business Dealings


[viii] Barber A-32 John Manningham’s Diary

“the anecdote appears to be a joke and as such very likely invented”

[ix] Donaldson, Ian, The Oxford Authors; Ben Jonson, Oxford University, 1985

[x] OED

Babylonian, n. and adj.

2. derogatory. Of, relating to, or belonging to the Roman Catholic Church; Roman Catholic. Obs.Chiefly with reference to Revelation 14–18. See Babylon n.2 1.

Greek, n.  4. A cunning or wily person; a cheat, sharper, esp. one who cheats at cards. (Cf. French grec.)


Item I gyve and bequeath to mr richard Hamlett Sadler Tyler thelder XXVIs VIIId to buy him A Ringe; to William Raynoldes gent XXVIs VIIId to buy him a Ringe; to my godson William Walker XXs. in gold; to Anthonye Nashe gent. XXVIs VIIId in gold; and to my ffellowes John Hemynges, Richard Burbage and Heny Cundell XXVIs VIIId A peece to buy them Ringes.[xi]

Bonner Cutting describes this section of Shakspere’s will as “the Ring Paragraph.”

This messy paragraph contains eight bequests: rings to two Stratford friends, three monetary gifts with no specified purpose, and of course the curious interlineation of the money to his “fellows” Heminge, Burbage and Condell to purchase rings. With the exception of the 20 shillings to his godson, the other bequests are all for 26s and 8d. Rings were popular gifts and testators often bequeathed their own. But when money was allocated for the purchase of rings, as it is in the Stratford Will, instructions were usually included for the type of ring to be purchased or for an inscription to be engraved on it. Mr. Shakespere’s bequest of rings is entered with no comment. As for the interlineation to the actors, it should be noted that they are the only legatees in the will who are outside of the testator’s immediate family and his close circle of friends in Stratford-on-Avon. It should also be noted that this line is so jammed between the original lines that the scrivener could barely fit it in.

Click to access Cutting-Will.pdf

[xii] Unless someone would like to put forth the idea that the John Robinson who served as witness to the will was a near anagram for “Rob-Ben-Johnson”  All we know of John Robinson was that he resided in Blackfriars (Jonson lived in Blackfriars for a time as well, coincidentally)

[xiii] OED

belie, v.2  †d. To assume falsely the character of; to counterfeit. Obs.

1616   B. Jonson Challenge at Tilt in Wks. I. 998   Art thou still so impudent, to belie my figure? that in what shape soeuer, I present my selfe, thou wilt seeme to be the same?

6. To reject the truth or integrity of implicitly; to treat (a thing) as false by acting at variance with it; to be false or faithless to. Obs.

1600   B. Jonson Every Man out of his Humor Dram. Pers.,   Fastidius Briske..cares not what Ladies fauor he belies.

Greek 8. Unintelligible speech or language, gibberish. Also heathen Greek (rarely Hebrew-Greek). (Cf.Hebrew n. 2b.) St. Giles’s Greek: slang.

a1616   Shakespeare Julius Caesar (1623) i. ii. 279–84   He spoke greeke…those that vnderstood him, smil’d at one another, and shooke their heads: was Greeke to me.

[xiv] Nason, Arthur Huntington, Heralds and Heraldry in Ben Jonson’s Plays, Masques and Entertainments, Press of Burliegh and Flynt, Maine, 1907, p 23

[xv] This author posits that the intention of the Droeshout was that readers fold the engraving in half and hold it up to the light to see the intended face framed with laurel leaves. I have also indicated that half of the engraving was copied from a painting of Henry Wriosthesly, the Third Earl of Southampton.  Since Jonson uses the phrase “your partie per pale picture” I think that the “grand” in this poem is directed at Southampton.


[xvi] OED


a.      With of or genitive. A person who strongly resembles another; a person who appears to be a likeness or image of someone or something else. Also (in early use) derogatory: a person who is a poor imitation of someone or something else; a counterfeit. Cf. image n. 4.

  1. 1609  Shakespeare Troilus & Cressida  i. 6   Thou picture of what thou seemest, and Idoll, Of idiot worshippers.

[xvii]   The copy of the Droeshout engraving in the Meisei copy of the First Folio appears to be creased down the center as if it was folded at some time.

[xviii] Chiljan, Katherine. Shakespeare Suppressed.  Faire Editions. 2011. Chiljan, pg – 203

[xix] OED

† imˈprese | ˈimprese, n.

Obs.     1. A device, emblem: = impresa n. 1.

  1.                         A motto: = impresa n. 2.

[xx] I don’t know if there has ever been a handwriting analysis of the arms application, or if there has ever been a suggestion that Jonson was involved in the writing of the application.  Some of the capital letters in each document resemble the other, but I would think that capital print letters are more likely to appear similar when written in different hands.  Comments are welcome below.  Image of Masque of Queens from

[xxi] The Arte of English Poesie Contriued into three Bookes: The first of Poets and Poesie, the second of Proportion, the third of Ornament, LONDON, Richard Field, 1589

The author of the Arte of English Poesie refers to anagrams as ladies’ entertainments so “mistris anagram” could be referring to the fact that anagrams weren’t a respected, or a “manly” form of wit.

Of the Anagrame, or Posie transposed.

One other pretie conceit we will impart vnto you and then trouble you with no more, and is also borrowed primitiuely of the Poet, or courtly maker we may terme him, the posie transposed, or in one word a transpose, a thing if it be done for pastime and exercise of the wit without superstition commendable inough and a meete study for Ladies, neither bringing them any great gayne nor any great losse, vnlesse it be of idle time.


[xxiii] Norris, Joseph Parker, The Portraits of Shakespeare, R. M. Lindsay, 1885 p179

[xxiv] OED

[xxv] The phrase “cock and bull” originated around this time, but there is no definite origin for the phrase.  Is it possible the phrase came from our lord’s “cock” (Shakspere) and the “bull” (Ox-ford/MonOx “my Ox”/Apis Lapis “stone Ox”)?  The identity switch could be the original cock and bull story.  cock and bull story noun informal  – an implausible story used as an explanation or excuse


Two other of Jonson’s epigram titles include “Play-wright”

[xxvii] Play-wright  – “the word wright is an archaic English term for a craftsman or builder (as in a wheelwright or cartwright). Hence the prefix and the suffix combine to indicate someone who has “wrought” words, themes, and other elements into a dramatic form – someone who crafts plays. The homophone with “write” is in this case entirely coincidental.

The term playwright appears to have been coined* by Ben Jonson in his Epigram 49, “To Playwright”, as an insult, to suggest a mere tradesman fashioning works for the theatre. Jonson described himself as a poet, not a playwright, since plays during that time were written in meter and so were regarded as the province of poets. This view was held as late as the early 19th century. The term playwright later lost this negative connotation.”

* “Playwright” may not have been coined by Jonson.  It is used by “Cygnus” in a dedication to Jonson’s Sejanus in 1605



[xxviii] Chiljan, Katherine. “Chapter 9 – A Pembroke and Jonson Production,” Shakespeare Suppressed. Faire Editions. 2011.




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